Ebooks outsell Pbooks: My own story

I see a whole lot of attention being paid to an Amazon press release saying that Kindle ebooks outsold print books…on Christmas Day.

With, of course, no actual numbers.

Thought experiment

  1. How many people do you think spend Christmas day ordering books online, to be delivered several days later?
  2. How many people, having just received a new Kindle, are likely to add a book or two to it immediately, as part of the “trying out the new gift” process?

It seems wildly probable that 2>1 in this case–that a lot more people would add books to their gift Kindles than would go online to order print books on Christmas Day itself.

Equally valid and impressive story

Here’s an absolutely true story: From December 13 through December 21, 2009, But Still They Blog: The Liblog Landscape 2007-2009 sold more copies in ebook format (OK, PDF download, but it’s still an ebook) than in print-book format!

Wow! Not only are ebooks now “mainstream” (whatever that means), but they’re dominating print books! This is proof!

And the numbers

But, unlike Amazon, I’ll actually provide the numbers behind this astonishing development.

  • PDF download copies sold: Three
  • Print copies sold: Two.

Hey, three is more than two, isn’t it? (Note the tightly-delimited time period; on 12/22, another print copy sold, making it even; overall, print copies slightly dominate.)

The reality

Yes, the Kindle2 and KindleDX and Sony Reader and Nook all combine to bring ebooks into the “mainstream,” although it’s not quite clear what that means (a situation not aided by Amazon’s consistent secrecy about numbers as opposed to comparisons).

But that “ebooks outsold pbooks” could mean any of the following:

  • Amazon sold 100 ebooks on Christmas day–but only 50 print books (wildly unlikely)
  • Amazon sold 1,000 ebooks on Christmas day. (Also unlikely)
  • Amazon sold 10,000, or 100,000, or (also unlikely) one million ebooks on Christmas day.

I won’t even venture a guess as to the order of magnitude, much less actual sales. (If it was a million, I would bet that Amazon would say so.)

But the real story here–

People spend more time on Christmas day getting acquainted with/playing with their new devices and toys than they do shopping for other stuff they don’t immediately need (and can’t even immediately have)

isn’t a particularly interesting or novel story.

Arrggh (12/29 update)… And now, a generally-thoughtful library-related blogger, who should know better, has reported this one-day phenomenon in a way that leads you to believe that Kindle ebooks outsold pbooks on Amazon for the entire year. [Updated 3 p.m.: See comments below: This was almost certainly an inadvertent error–which makes my final sentence below more significant:]

The curse of a cleverly-written press release.

4 Responses to “Ebooks outsell Pbooks: My own story”

  1. You are correct, and I wanted you to know I have corrected my post. Thanks for holding me to task!

  2. walt says:

    Carolyn: You’re welcome–and I deliberately didn’t name or link to you, as it’s the kind of error you can make through a quick reading of the PR. The rest of the post is interesting, and I don’t feel qualified to comment on it.

  3. Doug Johnson says:

    Hi Walt,

    A little book that my son and I wrote is available on Lulu either in print edition for $7 or as a free download.

    To date: 25 copies sold*
    4329 copied downloaded

    *To be fair, I sold a lot of hard copies when it was new.

    I think I will next try an experiment and charge a nominal fee for downloads – say, $5 with half going to a charity (Home for Wayward Librarians) and the other half to fund my wife’s Christmas present. Might be interesting.

    But your point is well-taken – we need to be careful in drawing conclusions about some pieces of data!


  4. walt says:


    It would be interesting to see what happens with that. More than 4,000 copies “distributed” is impressive, especially for Lulu…on the other hand, the oft-repeated credo “you gotta give away the ebook, then people will buy the print version” doesn’t seem to work out all that well in this case.